A possibly controversial question

I’ve been re-reading Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, and finding it very thought-provoking; it’s a good book to come back to after a time, and if you haven’t read it (and his more recent book, Collapse) I recommend it highly.

But here’s a question that popped into my head while reading it: (This will probably make a bit more sense to those who have read the book) Why did England successfully invade and colonize India, and not the other way round? I’m curious both about the proximate causes (my lack of Indian history is showing through) and the deeper reasons, if any can be traced back. Diamond’s analysis doesn’t seem to carry over unmodified to this case; India certainly had no shortage of intensive agriculture, nor a late start in developing it, and at times in its history was a large empire. Had the two countries been neighbors, the outcome might have been very different; similarly if they had come into contact a thousand years earlier. Nor was the battle completely one-sided; the Sikhs twice managed to field a very impressive army and pose a real challenge to British domination. Yet despite all of this, the British managed to basically set up shop and run a country many times their size, and hold that empire for over a century; so there must have been some major fundamental asymmetry.

Thoughts?

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Published in: on November 29, 2005 at 13:12  Comments (24)  
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24 Comments

  1. Oddly one of my friends on my friend’s list got into this today. Her hypothesis is here.

  2. Oddly one of my friends on my friend’s list got into this today. Her hypothesis is here.

  3. If you haven’t had a chance yet, I’ll back up Karl’s recommendation of Birth of Plenty, which shines some light on this question. I haven’t read GGS, which is still sitting on my bookshelf, so I can’t frame the question in the terms therein, and frankly would probably do a mediocre job of it even if I could. But I very much expect you would enjoy Bernstein’s work.

  4. If you haven’t had a chance yet, I’ll back up Karl’s recommendation of Birth of Plenty, which shines some light on this question. I haven’t read GGS, which is still sitting on my bookshelf, so I can’t frame the question in the terms therein, and frankly would probably do a mediocre job of it even if I could. But I very much expect you would enjoy Bernstein’s work.

  5. I’m not convinced of the cold-weather model, for a few reasons. First, Europe didn’t independently domesticate its crops; that domestication happened in the Fertile Crescent, where the weather is bloody hot most of the time. And the scarcity of game was a likewise worldwide phenomenon, typically happening shortly after humans arrived in an area. Second, the hot climates aren’t particularly easy places to live; those “10,000 zebras” are actually fairly ornery creatures, to say nothing of the perpetual problems of drought and disease.
    As far as “what’s next,” India has had a need to expand due to population for a very long time, but it never went on a large-scale empire-building binge; why not, and why would it start to do so now?

  6. I’m not convinced of the cold-weather model, for a few reasons. First, Europe didn’t independently domesticate its crops; that domestication happened in the Fertile Crescent, where the weather is bloody hot most of the time. And the scarcity of game was a likewise worldwide phenomenon, typically happening shortly after humans arrived in an area. Second, the hot climates aren’t particularly easy places to live; those “10,000 zebras” are actually fairly ornery creatures, to say nothing of the perpetual problems of drought and disease.
    As far as “what’s next,” India has had a need to expand due to population for a very long time, but it never went on a large-scale empire-building binge; why not, and why would it start to do so now?

  7. I think it’s geography. The geography of Europe isolated people into a multitude of population pockets that developed their own customs, religions, and languages. Additionally, the region is (relatively) short on natural resources which, as populations grew, sparked fierce competition for resources. Fierce competition, coupled with early advances in information exchange technologies, fueled technological growth.
    England in order to stay competitive had to maintain the same level of technological advance as its primary competitors on the continent. But what game them a push is that they’re on a island with limited resources. Which drove them toward trade. And a navy for self-defense. Which, in turn, protected the merchant fleets.
    England was successful because of technology, a well-trained professional army and navy, well-guarded supply lines, adequate force projection, mobility, and the strength of an empire behind them.
    The theory is that the cultures and empires of asia lacked the fierce competition that existed in Europe and were able to grow very large. But security breeds complacency.
    Japan, for example. The Tokugawa Shogunate survived until the start of the Meiji Period in the 19th Century. Because Japan was an isolated island that faced no significant external competition (the Divine Wind helping to destroy an invasion from the sea), it was able to maintain a rigid feudal system where the means of warfare remained unchanged for centuries. Had the Japanese people lived somewhere in or near Europe, the competition would have either forced them to change or would have destroyed them.

  8. I think it’s geography. The geography of Europe isolated people into a multitude of population pockets that developed their own customs, religions, and languages. Additionally, the region is (relatively) short on natural resources which, as populations grew, sparked fierce competition for resources. Fierce competition, coupled with early advances in information exchange technologies, fueled technological growth.
    England in order to stay competitive had to maintain the same level of technological advance as its primary competitors on the continent. But what game them a push is that they’re on a island with limited resources. Which drove them toward trade. And a navy for self-defense. Which, in turn, protected the merchant fleets.
    England was successful because of technology, a well-trained professional army and navy, well-guarded supply lines, adequate force projection, mobility, and the strength of an empire behind them.
    The theory is that the cultures and empires of asia lacked the fierce competition that existed in Europe and were able to grow very large. But security breeds complacency.
    Japan, for example. The Tokugawa Shogunate survived until the start of the Meiji Period in the 19th Century. Because Japan was an isolated island that faced no significant external competition (the Divine Wind helping to destroy an invasion from the sea), it was able to maintain a rigid feudal system where the means of warfare remained unchanged for centuries. Had the Japanese people lived somewhere in or near Europe, the competition would have either forced them to change or would have destroyed them.

  9. I actually really disliked the book from a scientific perspective. He makes many interesting points but often fails to provide evidence to support them. It’s an interesting read, no doubt, but doesn’t hold up well under close scrutiny as a stand-alone work.
    Also, he came and spoke to my IHUM class way back in the day and was actually quite evasive in answering well-thought-out, well-phrased questions about some of the holes in his book. He basically said, thank you for asking, all the answers are in my book. It was really rude.

  10. I actually really disliked the book from a scientific perspective. He makes many interesting points but often fails to provide evidence to support them. It’s an interesting read, no doubt, but doesn’t hold up well under close scrutiny as a stand-alone work.
    Also, he came and spoke to my IHUM class way back in the day and was actually quite evasive in answering well-thought-out, well-phrased questions about some of the holes in his book. He basically said, thank you for asking, all the answers are in my book. It was really rude.

  11. Keep in mind, that’s her theory.
    What about an overdeveloped sense of needing protection? Great Britain and the middle east are the two mose invaded areas on the planet; waves after waves went to both locations, and just kept coming. The middle east responded by dividing into multiple small states that attacked each other AND the invaders, changing borders. The English did that a little (Ireland, Scotland), but for the most part were unified under their own specific dictators/monarchs.
    When the British Empire got strong enough to protect itself, it slowly grew outwards, absorbing everyone around them so they could put them down before they even got the idea to take over the UK. Keep in mind that generations and generations in England had to protect extremely limited resources (they are on an island), were then subjugated, and then had to fight off their oppressors until the next wave came. Those who remained were BRED to a certain degree of warlikeness, and when the Empire was strong enough to make worrying about your farm being taken by pirates minimal, there were probably still young, strong men who could and were interested in fighting like their parents and grandparents.
    What do you do with that energy? What do you do with the conciousness?
    Mind you, I have done extremely little reading about this, so there might be a zillion holes in it.

  12. Keep in mind, that’s her theory.
    What about an overdeveloped sense of needing protection? Great Britain and the middle east are the two mose invaded areas on the planet; waves after waves went to both locations, and just kept coming. The middle east responded by dividing into multiple small states that attacked each other AND the invaders, changing borders. The English did that a little (Ireland, Scotland), but for the most part were unified under their own specific dictators/monarchs.
    When the British Empire got strong enough to protect itself, it slowly grew outwards, absorbing everyone around them so they could put them down before they even got the idea to take over the UK. Keep in mind that generations and generations in England had to protect extremely limited resources (they are on an island), were then subjugated, and then had to fight off their oppressors until the next wave came. Those who remained were BRED to a certain degree of warlikeness, and when the Empire was strong enough to make worrying about your farm being taken by pirates minimal, there were probably still young, strong men who could and were interested in fighting like their parents and grandparents.
    What do you do with that energy? What do you do with the conciousness?
    Mind you, I have done extremely little reading about this, so there might be a zillion holes in it.

  13. Off the top of my head, I’d say that the British had already held an empire for some time. Their other possessions, and especially their prominent role in the slave trade, allowed them to accumulate resources that India, still divided among various rulers, could not compete with.
    The conquest of India was the act of a mature empire. If you compared Rome and Egypt in classical times, you’d find a similar situation. Rome was only able to absorb Egypt after it had Gaul and Spain and North Africa to add to its power.
    I don’t know much Indian history, though. I could be missing something.

  14. Off the top of my head, I’d say that the British had already held an empire for some time. Their other possessions, and especially their prominent role in the slave trade, allowed them to accumulate resources that India, still divided among various rulers, could not compete with.
    The conquest of India was the act of a mature empire. If you compared Rome and Egypt in classical times, you’d find a similar situation. Rome was only able to absorb Egypt after it had Gaul and Spain and North Africa to add to its power.
    I don’t know much Indian history, though. I could be missing something.

  15. I wonder to what extent financial networks come into it. I don’t know enough to speculate, but my guess would be that Britain’s ability to pay its troops and buy its supplies (and its allies) was actually superior to the locals.
    Superior technology, of course, is a part of it, particularly in terms of a technical base. The Mahrattas, for instance, probably had gunnery of an equal quality thanks to Goanese mercenaries, but they didn’t really use it properly because they weren’t familiar with it. Or something.
    The other thing, of course, is that India wasn’t just one country. It was several countries, and the British did their thing of subverting local leaders pretty well.

  16. I wonder to what extent financial networks come into it. I don’t know enough to speculate, but my guess would be that Britain’s ability to pay its troops and buy its supplies (and its allies) was actually superior to the locals.
    Superior technology, of course, is a part of it, particularly in terms of a technical base. The Mahrattas, for instance, probably had gunnery of an equal quality thanks to Goanese mercenaries, but they didn’t really use it properly because they weren’t familiar with it. Or something.
    The other thing, of course, is that India wasn’t just one country. It was several countries, and the British did their thing of subverting local leaders pretty well.

  17. It’s more than just the cold. Look at eskimos.
    Synergy from competition, communication (technology), history (knowledge), and practice made European powers compitent when it came to games of Risk. I can’t help but feel like anything I could say about England specifically would be speculation though…
    I wonder what the differences in the class systems were between England, and other nations though… England was pretty liberal pretty early from what I recall.

  18. It’s more than just the cold. Look at eskimos.
    Synergy from competition, communication (technology), history (knowledge), and practice made European powers compitent when it came to games of Risk. I can’t help but feel like anything I could say about England specifically would be speculation though…
    I wonder what the differences in the class systems were between England, and other nations though… England was pretty liberal pretty early from what I recall.

  19. I personally enjoyed the first portion of GGS more than the later sections (i.e. fertile crescent and almonds). Sure, I could give an in depth, speculative, theoretical answer based upon my studies in military intervention, globalization, colonization and western European influences. However, perhaps we can just look for the answer in the title? The Brits had “guns, germs and steel”…though the germs played a larger role in colonizing the new continent 😉
    However, I find it interesting the colonization of this sort was governed more by the competition for resources rather than the need to accomodate an ever expanding population. Even more ironic, I think powers such as Britain intially saw the resource potential. When presented with the high population density, slavery seemed like a key idea to turn a difficult situation into a beneficial one…though soon after they found themselves more involved in the social and political structure than anticipated. Britain took interest in reforming a culture and nation only to ease the progress of its own, which is part of the reason many countries (e.g. Nigeria) are still in economic/social/political turmoil.
    Wow, I did end up saying something moderately educated. My bad.

  20. I personally enjoyed the first portion of GGS more than the later sections (i.e. fertile crescent and almonds). Sure, I could give an in depth, speculative, theoretical answer based upon my studies in military intervention, globalization, colonization and western European influences. However, perhaps we can just look for the answer in the title? The Brits had “guns, germs and steel”…though the germs played a larger role in colonizing the new continent 😉
    However, I find it interesting the colonization of this sort was governed more by the competition for resources rather than the need to accomodate an ever expanding population. Even more ironic, I think powers such as Britain intially saw the resource potential. When presented with the high population density, slavery seemed like a key idea to turn a difficult situation into a beneficial one…though soon after they found themselves more involved in the social and political structure than anticipated. Britain took interest in reforming a culture and nation only to ease the progress of its own, which is part of the reason many countries (e.g. Nigeria) are still in economic/social/political turmoil.
    Wow, I did end up saying something moderately educated. My bad.

  21. This might be in GGaS (I am vaguely familiar with some of the arguments but have not read it yet), or someone else’s comment (I only skimmed them). If so, ignore its repetition:
    One argument I heard (whose source I unfortunately do not recall) is sort of the cold-based argument, but not counting on the domestication of animals, so much as the storage of grain: with harsher climate generally and a more seasonal based climate, one needs to be smarter about storing grain (or else you starve in the winter). This leads to greater agricultural efficiency, which theoretically (I guess – the theory is only hazy in my mind) leads to all sorts of other Good Things(tm).
    The other thought that occurs to me is less of an over-all ‘Europe was better placed than elsewhere’ thing as an sort of accident thing: the potato. When the potato was brought over from the New World to Europe in the 1600s (I think? Give or take 50 years) and was cultivated on a large scale, it increased the available food supply immensely. It is just a lot more efficient source of staple food. I know it was cultivated a lot in Great Britain and Germany, and contributed to a large population boom both places. The well known Irish problem with the potato was because it was too good: the British wanted to use as much Irish agricultural land as they could for cash crops, so set aside only the bare minimum for the growing of the very efficient potato to feed the Irish. Unfortunately, since that was the only staple crop, it caused problems when it failed (needless to say).

  22. This might be in GGaS (I am vaguely familiar with some of the arguments but have not read it yet), or someone else’s comment (I only skimmed them). If so, ignore its repetition:
    One argument I heard (whose source I unfortunately do not recall) is sort of the cold-based argument, but not counting on the domestication of animals, so much as the storage of grain: with harsher climate generally and a more seasonal based climate, one needs to be smarter about storing grain (or else you starve in the winter). This leads to greater agricultural efficiency, which theoretically (I guess – the theory is only hazy in my mind) leads to all sorts of other Good Things(tm).
    The other thought that occurs to me is less of an over-all ‘Europe was better placed than elsewhere’ thing as an sort of accident thing: the potato. When the potato was brought over from the New World to Europe in the 1600s (I think? Give or take 50 years) and was cultivated on a large scale, it increased the available food supply immensely. It is just a lot more efficient source of staple food. I know it was cultivated a lot in Great Britain and Germany, and contributed to a large population boom both places. The well known Irish problem with the potato was because it was too good: the British wanted to use as much Irish agricultural land as they could for cash crops, so set aside only the bare minimum for the growing of the very efficient potato to feed the Irish. Unfortunately, since that was the only staple crop, it caused problems when it failed (needless to say).

  23. India has had a need to expand due to population for a very long time,
    I think there might be a key difference here, though: not in the existence of a burgeoning population, but in the time scale involved. India, I think, has to a certain degree pretty much always had a population problem. Geography was largely against them spilling out elsewhere. But more importantly, it was pretty much a static element: lots of population was status quo, so they just sort of dealt with (well or poorly) it as they dealt with similar expected problems. In Europe, population boom, especially on the scale of the industrial revolution leading into the imperialist era, was something new. Europe did not really have a history of (and therefore familiarity with) dealing with the problem (heck, the last time England had had the starting of a population problem, the Black Death conveniently came along and solved it for them). Just around the time, the means to more effectively distribute people (bigger, better ships, better food storage, etc.) were becoming available.
    Of course, my details here could be a bit off or skewed: India is most certainly not my area of study, and my knowledge European history, although still better than your average bear, starts drop off pretty rapidly once we hit the Reformation.

  24. India has had a need to expand due to population for a very long time,
    I think there might be a key difference here, though: not in the existence of a burgeoning population, but in the time scale involved. India, I think, has to a certain degree pretty much always had a population problem. Geography was largely against them spilling out elsewhere. But more importantly, it was pretty much a static element: lots of population was status quo, so they just sort of dealt with (well or poorly) it as they dealt with similar expected problems. In Europe, population boom, especially on the scale of the industrial revolution leading into the imperialist era, was something new. Europe did not really have a history of (and therefore familiarity with) dealing with the problem (heck, the last time England had had the starting of a population problem, the Black Death conveniently came along and solved it for them). Just around the time, the means to more effectively distribute people (bigger, better ships, better food storage, etc.) were becoming available.
    Of course, my details here could be a bit off or skewed: India is most certainly not my area of study, and my knowledge European history, although still better than your average bear, starts drop off pretty rapidly once we hit the Reformation.


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